Fresno Bee: Central Valley Honor Flight gives Korean vets one more mission
The Korean War had been raging for two years when Riverdale native Bill Robinett spent his first night in a trench in Korea. He was 22 and scared.
“It was very scary, of course, especially the first week and first night,” says Robinett, now 85 and living in Fresno. “We were in our trench and they (North Koreans) were in their trench about a quarter-mile away and it was a case of who could shoot the most at each other.
Bill Robinett of Fresno is a Korean War veteran who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. with the Central Valley Honor Flight.
Bill Robinett of Fresno is a Korean War veteran who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. with the Central Valley Honor Flight. | CRAIG KOHLRUSS CKOHLRUSS@FRESNOBEE.COM
“I remember my first evening was nothing but scary because there was a lot of stuff going on and most of it went on at night.”
Such recollections are sure to return to Robinett this week. On Tuesday, with the 65th anniversary of the start of the war approaching, Robinett and 20 other Korean War veterans will join 46 World War II veterans on a journey from Fresno to Washington, D.C., as part of Central Valley Honor Flight, a program designed to take veterans to the nation’s capital to see the memorials erected in their honor. This is the seventh honor flight from the central San Joaquin Valley and the first time Central Valley Honor Flight will be taking Korean War veterans on the journey.
Sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War lasted three years, from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. World War II left Korea fractured into a communist north and capitalist, American-occupied south. The war began when North Korean Prime Minister Kim Il-sung sent his army across the border into South Korea. Using Russian tanks and artillery, North Korea quickly overtook South Korea, prompting American intervention. After driving North Korea back across the border, the two countries came to an uneasy detente that continues today.
Charlie Waters was 20 when his service in Korea as a corporal with the 5th Marine Regiment began. He finished the war as a sergeant. He remembers his time in Korea vividly.
“I was a radio operator, but they assigned me to the 5th Marines where I became a forward observer. I would find targets and call them in and blow them to hell,” says Waters, 83, of Fresno. “It was the coldest place I’d ever been in. I’d never been shot at before. I’d never been attacked with such viciousness before.”
Now, decades later, Waters and fellow veterans will get a chance to see the monument that celebrates their valor.
Al Perry is a retired 1st lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps who served during Vietnam. He is Central Valley Honor Flight’s president and has been with the organization since its inception in 2013. He says that Honor Flight has always allowed veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars to apply to go on the trip, but that World War II veterans have priority. Over the last two years he has gathered roughly 70 applications from Korean War vets, but hasn’t been able to take them on a flight until now because of the many World War II vets who have applied.
Monte Schrader served in Korea as a private in the military police guarding prisoners on the island of Kojodo. Now 85, he is making his first trip to Washington.
“It’s going to make me think about it more, what I did over there and some of the things I was involved with, a few harrowing experiences,” says Schrader, of Modesto.
Nearly 6 million American servicemen and women served in Korea: 36,574 died, while over 100,000 were wounded. An estimated 2.25 million Korean War veterans are alive today nationwide. Of those, 174,068 live in California.
“Sometimes Korea is called ‘the forgotten war,’ but if you see a NASA shot of Korea (from space), in North Korea you’ll see virtually no light whatsoever,” Perry says. “South of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), from 30 thousand feet, it’s a blaze of lights. The South Koreans are free, and they would not have been without U.S. servicemen and women intervening to protect that freedom.
A sense of loss will accompany some veterans on their journey to Washington.
“I just lost a friend who was in Korea the same time I was there. He was up on the front lines and he told me how guys were getting shot all around him and he was lucky to get out alive,” Schrader says. “He just passed away last December.”
For some, the trip is simply a chance to see new sights and celebrate their service and that of others. Robinett, who was a first sergeant with the Army 3rd Infantry Division, is excited to see the memorials.
“I’ve seen some of them, but I haven’t seen the Korean Memorial or the World War II Memorial. I have always gone to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and I think it’s one of the greatest things we have in our country,” Robinett says.
Over the course of three days, starting with a chartered flight from Fresno Yosemite International Airport that departs early Tuesday morning, veterans will visit the World War II, Air Force, Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Korea and Navy memorials. They will tour the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Women’s Military History Museum. They will also attend the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and be guests at two lunches, one hosted by the American Legion and one hosted by California congressmen Jim Costa, Jeff Denham, Devin Nunes and David Valadao. All of this before returning to Fresno on Thursday.
Honor Flight is always a powerful experience for those who participate, and the service it provides to those who served is an essential one, Perry says:
“For some it’s closure, for some it brings back very raw, emotional memories. They were young, they were brave, they were strong, they were probably scared to death many times. But it’s saying to them at this point in their life, ‘What you did was valuable.’”